Kopicki: MSBA Timeline and Public Process (Oct. 26 2015 public comment)

STATEMENT #1 : MSBA Timeline

Today I spoke on the phone with the MSBA to get clarification about the process in which we are engaged and I would like to share this information with the larger community. It was both an enlightening and encouraging conversation.

The deadlines as laid out in the project schedule (put together by the OPM and architects) must indeed be adhered to, otherwise the MSBA may look unfavorably upon our project. The 30 month deadline that has been described begins from the date of the Feasibility Study Agreement offered by the MSBA, October 2014 accordingly to Mr. Joslin, the Owner’s Project Manager. At the end of this 30 month period (April 2017), the project will have been designed and priced and all key decisions confirmed.

However, the documents that are due imminently (the Educational Plan and Preliminary Design Program) are not exactly what has been presented by the administration. The MSBA official explained to me that they are essentially a business plan, not only providing information on how we are currently doing business but also discussing options on how we can do business in the future. It can and should contain our wishes for changes or preservation in terms of things like class size, curriculum, and, yes, grade configuration.

However, and more important to our current state of debate, the Preliminary Design Program does not choose the project and the Educational Plan is not the final word about whether we choose grade reconfiguration, simply that we are considering it as a possibility. The alternatives of renovating, addition, and new construction, and the many ways to accomplish each, remain on the table. Narrowing down to one option is NOT where we are in the process; it is getting ahead of ourselves and something that the MSBA specifically and pointedly warns against.

The MSBA, for their part, understand that there are usually a variety of opinions on the subject and are careful to seek out and understand local actions and approvals/disapproval. They read the minutes of committee meetings, local news coverage, and communications sent to town and school officials. If there is resistance to the suggestions of the administration and school committee, local action is expected and encouraged so that by the end of the 30 months, a project that has gained the approval of the town can move forward.

Let’s make the Educational Plan the living document that it is meant to be, preserving our options, spawning a productive dialogue, and helping us to arrive at a place where we can say that democracy has been allowed to do its work. The SC doesn’t have to have the false choice of 1) either rubberstamping the district’s plan to prevent the process from derailing or 2) doing due diligence, asking and getting answers to all the questions that remain, reaching their own conclusions, and adding modifications or alternatives to the administration’s proposal. Fortunately, it can, in fact, do the latter based on the MSBA’s own guidelines.

STATEMENT #2

I think a problem many of us are struggling with is the fact that the proposal being backed by the administration is a resource allocation solution, not an educational plan, yet it is being sold as such. If you want to win me over, then PROVE to me that the proposed reconfiguration is the best option not with purple prose, pretty pictures and platitudes but with hard data, clear evidence, and pertinent educational research.

I believe there are many questions that remain unanswered. What is the evidence, based on studies/research and experience, of the benefits/detriments of a PreK- 1/2-6 grade reconfiguration? Apparently 2 school districts have been identified that use this particular configuration and I think we need to hear from them directly. On the other hand, in Holliston-Hopkinton, MA the town chose the exact opposite of what we are considering, that is moving away from grade-specific schools (K-2 and 3-6) and towards neighborhood K-6 schools. Let’s find out more about all of them. Don’t elementary educators question the wisdom of the breakpoint being between 1st and 2nd grade, explaining that if a transition is necessary it makes much better developmental and educational sense to do it AFTER 2nd grade? What is the evidence, again based on studies/research and experience, of the benefits/detriments of small school vs large school vs “schools within schools”?

I was extremely saddened that the issues of our elementary schools has now been framed so as to spark a battle among residents. Opponents of grade reconfiguration have been cast as callously disregarding the deplorable conditions at Fort River while the Fort River community has been lead to believe that the district’s proposal is their only hope of improving their situation. Neither of these statements is the case, but the presentation made last week at the school committee meeting is creating an environment more toxic than the buildings themselves. The presentation also failed to present any information on the costs of renovation, repeatedly making general statements about it being just as expensive as new construction but supplying no contractors estimates, no evidence that any consultant specifically evaluated WW and FR, and no hard numbers about costs or limitations or possibilities. In addition, important details about transportation issues are still not available. For example, the most important statistic is which is MAXIMUM ride times under the proposed reconfiguration. Average ride times do not present the whole picture of what our kids’ morning and afternoon commutes would look like and are, in fact, misleading. Further, the estimates must be based on actual trial runs at representative and worst possible commuting times, not simply mileage that cannot account for traffic related delays.

This whole process began as structural problems (the declining state of both WW and FR) and has morphed into a political problem (with FR being portrayed as being potentially left behind). What we didn’t start out with was an educational system problem (a PK/K-6 configuration that is supported by the residents). Trying to solve the first two problems by changing the one piece that is functional defies logic. It has created fear and distrust and is not necessary.

I believe that there is an alternative that can satisfy all of our concerns and I was extremely disappointed that it was not addressed at all at the SC meeting last week. In my opinion, the best option available is renovation of both Wildwood (with MSBA support) and Fort River (on our own, if necessary). Using MSBA estimates of similar projects, the total cost to the town would be on the same scale as that of a single, large school as proposed in grade configuration. It maintains a grade structure that is supported by the community, pedagogical evidence, and the experience of other districts. Transportation costs, ride times, and environmental impact are not increased. All Amherst elementary school students would attend updated, safe, ADA-compliant buildings. Luckily, the Educational Plan contains very little that is specific to grade configuration. Almost everything the district hopes to achieve is possible through renovation and those few items that are easier with consolidation into one building are still possible.